Surfing the Spectacle

Who Watches the Watchmen?

The Roman poet Juvenal once famously asked, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” or “Who watches the watchmen?” The question is not rhetorical. Trevor Paglen. He watches the watchmen.


The modern surveillance state is far more competent than anything the Romans had to worry about. Nowadays, people just sort of expect that their phones are tapped and emails read by CIA spooks and deep government agents. Apathy strikes hard and deep, and leaves a nasty infection that takes ages to heal.

In comes Trevor Paglen. An artist. A photographer. A hunter of ghosts. His subject of choice: secret bases.


This is one of Mr. Paglen’s photos. It’s Area 51 at 26 miles: which is pretty much the legal boundary. You see, Mr. Paglen can’t enter the bases. That could get him shot. So he does the next best thing.

He sits 30 miles away with a telescope and documents them.


This one is called “They Watch the Moon.” It’s a picture of the Sugar Grove Complex in West Virginia. The complex is supposed to observe outer space. Yet, many people believe it observes us: a covert NSA outpost, disguised nefariously as a research center.

So……Mr. Paglen watches it back. Just in case.

Chemical and Biological Weapons Proving Ground/Dugway; UT/Distance approx. 42 miles; 11:17 a.m., 2006

Trevor Paglen is not releasing state secrets. He doesn’t break the law. He is not a revolutionary. He collects no evidence. But he is watching.

The invisible hand of power rests across the country in nooks and crannies that could be anywhere, lurking in the dark behind barbed wire fences. Trevor Paglen watches the invisible, the obscure and untouchable. Nothing else. The NSA, the CIA, the FBI, in whichever form they come, are not alone. Trevor Paglen watches the watchmen. This gives me immense comfort.

Guest Entry by John Wagner

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